Sauerbrunn Leads DCU Women to Conference Championship

Becky Sauerbrunn plays for the Black-And-Red in her last match before the Olympics

On one of the hottest evenings in DC history, a season-record 703 fans showed up at the Maryland Soccerplex Stadium to watch the DC United Women play the Dayton Dutch Lions, the last match Becky Sauerbrunn would play on domestic soil before joining the United States Women’s National Team for the upcoming Olympics in London. They would not be disappointed, as the Black-and-Red cruised to a 4-1 victory keyed by a Sauerbrunn goal early in the second half.

Since their conference rivals the Atlanta Silverbacks had played to a tie right as the match started, the win gave the United Women the W-League regular-season Eastern Conference Championship and the right to host the conference playoffs at the Soccerplex on July 21 and 22.

It was an almost archetypal match for DC, as despite having one of the highest-scoring offenses in the W-League the team typically spends long periods struggling to score goals. That was the case throughout the first half as the forwards failed to break through Dayton’s bunker. Lianne Sanderson noted that after the match: “I think it’s difficult now because obviously we’re the team to beat in the division, and I think a lot of teams come here and sit behind the ball. It’s difficult to break down.”

Lianne Sanderson scores for DC United in the first half

Sanderson would score the team’s lone first half goal, as in the 34th minute Ashley Herndon sent a well-aimed cross in from the right that came to the English forward’s feet in the goal box. She would bobble the first touch but maintained possession, slide a little to the right, and knock the ball in.

The Dutch Lions had been unable to mount any sort of sustained attack but had some dangerous moments on counters. One of those paid off in first-half stoppage time as a perfectly lofted long ball was sent in to a forward in the box. United central defender Marisa Abegg made a sensational diving play to block the ball with a foot but couldn’t clear it. It fell to forward Emilie Fillion of Dayton, who was able to put it away. It was a disheartening way for the home team to end the half. “They got one right before halftime, which hurt,” head coach Mike Jorden said.

However, at halftime, the players learned that the championship berth was in their hands, and that made a big difference in the team’s morale. “We came out with a new attitude in the second half,” Jorden observed, and Becky Sauerbrunn agreed. “I think it raised our spirits a little bit, and I think you could see that in the second half.”

Observers of these team have learned to wait for the offensive explosion when it comes, though it can be hard on the blood pressure when it arrives late. This time it came eight minutes into the second half, begun by, of all players, Sauerbrunn herself.

“Mike was saying [at halftime] let’s have some people scoring who don’t normally score, and he said my name, and everyone was like, ‘Ha ha, she’s never going to score.’ Which is true – I never score. And it’s funny, though, I got a ball out wide, and played it in to Hayley [Siegel] and just continued my run towards the goal. And she had an amazing scoop pass, split their center backs. I just had to chest it down, and then it was just me and the goalkeeper, and I just tried to shoot it – not at her.”

From the press box, we saw her come forward and send the ball off. We thought that would be it for her contribution, but then Siegel sent in her feed, and you could see a tall blonde charging in on goal. “No way!” we all chorused as Sauerbrunn trapped the ball and then sent it in over the goalkeeper’s left shoulder.

Rarer than a transit of Venus: Sauerbrunn scores a goal

It was Sauerbrunn’s first goal in competition since April 11, 2009, when she scored the first goal ever for the WPS Washington Freedom – again at the Soccerplex – in a match against the Chicago Red Stars. That one, though, was a header off a Sonia Bompastor free kick. We didn’t think to ask the last time she scored from the run of play.

U-17 WNTer Andi Sullivan - look for her on the 2020 Olympic team

That would open the floodgates. Three minutes later, Andi Sullivan, at 16 the youngest player on the team, ran across the top of the box to elude some defenders, then fired a shot from about 20 yards out that was somewhat redirected by a defender before going into the net. “I’d been trying to take shots from distance. I just took a few touches, beat somebody, and then hit it with my right foot, and it ricocheted off a defender’s back and then thankfully went in, and I think that the shot wouldn’t have gone in if she hadn’t been there, actually. Just getting my shots off a little quicker helped out. ”

Not to be outdone, two minutes later, Ashley Herndon – at 17 the second-youngest player on the team – in a tremendous solo effort got the ball at the right side of midfield, brought the ball down the right sideline, outfought a defender for it about thirty yards out, got around her, beat another defender, came into the right side of the box and from a tough angle sent the ball into the left side netting. Both goals were recorded as unassisted.

In literally six minutes the game went from a tough draw to a blowout. But this is typical of the Black-and-Red, who, if you look at their clumps of scoring, have notched 22 of their 34 goals in a mere 116 minutes of actual playing time out of 990 total minutes of game time.

Meanwhile, the youngsters on the team should not be overlooked in the deserved hoopla over Sauerbrunn. U-17 national team player Sullivan played her first minutes for DC after completing her season with her youth team and never for a minute looked like a 16-year-old, despite being asked to play two positions in the same evening, first right flank midfielder and then holding central midfielder. “We played her in a couple of different places,” Jorden said. “She brings a lot of things that maybe some other players don’t bring. I’m happy that she got the goal, and she helped us out tonight. She had a good game.”

And it wouldn't be surprising to have Ashley Herndon on that team as well

Herndon, meanwhile, has been solid all season and is third on the team in scoring with four goals and an assist, behind only the phenomenal Mikaela Howell and former English national-teamer Sanderson.

The team remains unbeaten in W-League play this season and looks to continue with that next weekend as they travel down to Virginia Beach for the final game of the season. “Yeah, Virginia Beach is going to be a tough game,” Sanderson said. “We tied with ‘em here, 1-1, and they’re a difficult team to play against, they’re really physical. But obviously we want to carry our unbeaten run and carry on doing what we’re doing. And going into the playoffs you want to get into a good run and play well as a team.”

As previously mentioned, the conference playoffs will take place July 21 and 22, with the winner going on to the W-League Final Four in Ottawa the following weekend. United is the only team to have clinched a berth so far, with seven other teams in contention for the remaining three slots. In the first round, they will face the second-place team in their own division, which at this point could be either the Fredericksburg Impact or the Virginia Beach Piranhas.

Coach Jorden is hoping for a similarly good turnout for those matches. “I hope everybody gets behind us because it’s great when they do, and the players like to have a packed house like we got tonight. It’s exciting, and I hope we keep bringing in the soccer fans. “

Photos courtesy of Tony Quinn.

Other coverage:

DC United Women: D.C. United Women clinch best record in Eastern Conference with 4-1 rout of Dayton; will host playoffs from July 21-22

Beau Dure/SportsMyriad: Sauerbrunn’s sendoff, Sullivan’s smashing debut, and a JoLi party

Gazette.net: D.C. United Women win, earn home playoff game

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